Stagg, Australian World Orchestra, Mehta, Edinburgh International Festival Revue 2022

Zubin Mehta conducts the Australian World Orchestra at Usher HallThe two images by J Shurte for the Edinburgh International Festival

The Edinburgh International Festival is playing its part in the UK/Australia 2021-22 season (no, me neither) by hosting this concert by the Australian World Orchestra. It is made up of Australian musicians who play in orchestras across Europe and North America, as well as in Australia itself.

Therefore, it’s as global as it is Australian, and you could feel that in both their choice of program and the way they played. but with a good sense of musical drama in the first movement. It was tempered by beautifully gentle winds and an overall sense of sunny beauty in the slow motion, blessed by melting, beautiful horn playing.

They adopted a surprisingly big sound for the Scherzo, which felt heavy while still retaining some dance elements, and the powerful finale proved beyond doubt that conductor Zubin Mehta had always understood this. He looks increasingly frail now, and slowly ascends the podium with the help of a staff (the ritualistic entrances and exits during the applause seemed rather cruel in this context), but when he raises his staff, he always runs with energy, and the sounds he conjured up were terrific.

Choosing Webern’s Passacaglia and Six Orchestral Pieces was another way for the orchestra to identify with the cerebral culture of central Europe, rather than asserting an antipodal distance towards it. And they made both works great, each section brilliantly highlighted and treating the music like an orchestral concerto. That’s the problem with the Second Vienna School: their works rarely find success with the public, but few other pieces of music give orchestral players such a chance to shine as individuals. The real Australian flavor of this program comes from Debussy Ariettes forgottenperformed by Australian soprano Siobhan Stagg (pictured above with Mehta and the Orchestra) and orchestrated by none other than Brett Dean (who is also in town this weekend to perform at Queen’s Hall). Dean chooses a small string component for his orchestration, but three winds and four horns. It gives it a pretty luxurious feel, and I never felt like it sounded like a puffy piano part. Dean tries to tap into the much later world of Pelleas, and largely successful. His direction is excellent for the undulating rainscape of “He’s crying in my heart” and the shimmering frost of “Green”, as well as the swirling merry-go-round of “Horses of wood”.

Stagg’s is a pretty petite soprano and interestingly she seemed to keep her eyes on Mehta here throughout, even though she was singing from memory. However, if the balance of the musicians’ voices was a little weak, then the orchestra certainly sounded like they liked to play music.

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